Damaging Priorities

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs, but ask yourself what makes you come alive, for the world needs more people that have come alive.” –Howard Thurman

(This is part 5 of a 5 part series on why our school system is horribly broken)

Schools claim to be trying to prepare kids for the future.  You see all sorts of inspirational slogans hanging in hallways, and cute little sayings about these students being our future leaders.  Lets be honest, most schools are not designed to develop future leaders.

Think about what kids do at school and more importantly how they do it?  It seems to me that schools accomplish two primary things:

  1. Free day care for millions of american families (very useful).
  2. Teach students to memorize and follow directions (sometimes useful).

Think back through your high school days.  What time did you start school? What did you spend most of your time doing?  What would get you in trouble?  What would get you praise?  What did you look forward to when you went to school?

Not every school situation was the same, but if you went to a traditional school you probably answered the questions as follows.

  • What time did you start school? Way to early (everyone struggling to stay awake).
  • What did you spend most of your time doing? Sitting, “listening” to a teacher lecture.
  • What would get you in trouble? Not following instructions properly (talking in class, not turning in assignments, improper attire, failing tests, and actually illegal stuff).
  • What would get you praise? Correct answers and following instructions.
  • What did you look forward to when you went to school? Hanging out with your friends.  If you didn’t have friends, then high school was probably some of the worst years of your life.

To summarize, most high schools in practice prioritizes following direction, knowing the correct answer, and being able repeatedly do boring tasks.  The ultimate pinnacle of this is to be able to repeatedly get enough correct answers so that you can get into a “good” college.

If you have worked any length of time you know that these are useful skills for college, McDonald’s, and a factory floor.  However, they are actually pretty harmful “skills” to have for many of today’s most important jobs.

Side Note 1 – I am not picking on teachers.  They are not the problem.  Good teachers use their time with students to teach kids important life skills in addition to their subject.

Side Note 2 – I am not saying all content taught in class is useless.  Basic math, writing, and reading skills make it easier to be successful at life.  However, test scores show we are not teaching these well to the students who need it most?

Despite what the slogans say schools are not preparing “future leaders” or teaching students to “love learning”.  For me school really dampened my love of learning for several years, and only indirectly taught me skill I needed for leadership roles.

The Real Priorities:

“The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

In my opinion the primary purpose of public schools should be to increase the number of healthy and productive citizens in society; and a private schools primary purpose should be preparing the individual to be as successful as possible.  I wish schools actually believed the quote above.

If those were the real priorities would schools make the following decisions?

  • Prioritize biology and physics ahead of useful life skills (budgeting, cooking, and shop class).
  • Prioritize calculus ahead of statistics and understanding investing.
  • Teach subjects instead of teaching students how to teach themselves.
  • Allow sports schedules to be more important than class schedules.
  • Reward memorization much more often than problem solving.

Are the choices above helping create more productive citizens or increasing the chance of future success for most students?  In a vacuum yes, but all humans have finite time and energy for learning.  Are we using that time wisely.

If we are not focused on creating health and productive citizens then what is the real priority?

From my observations you have three main priorities in most schools?

  1. Get Students into College
    • A “good” school system has lots of college graduates.
    • A “great” school has lots of Ivy league graduates.
  2. Day Care
    • Keeping kids occupied all day is helpful to many families.
    • Also seen as a way to lower crime by keeping teenagers occupied much of the day.
  3. Athletic Achievement
    • It’s America.  We LOVE sports.

There is nothing wrong with getting students into college, day care, or athletic achievement.  Problems arise when we make these our primary goals.  Below are just a few of the negative outcomes that are created by incorrect priorities.

  1. Parents and coaches flipping out over sports results.
  2. Teaching students who are unlikely to go to college classes that have no practical application outside of college.
  3. Moving on to the next section in math even when half the class failed the last test, or “graduating” students who can barely read.
  4. Limiting the speed of learning for students who find a subject easy.
  5. Saying that physics is a more “important” class than art or music.
  6. Cancelling recess and physical activity so students can sit in classrooms longer.
    • Seriously? Can school administrators not read?  Study after study shows that physical exercise speeds up learning.
    • Here’s a great idea: lets reduce recess so little elementary age kids can have less fun, less exercise, and learn less.
    • In a very real sense, schools are torturing and medicating high energy kids so the rest of the class can learn less.

These are just some of the moronic consequences of politics and incorrect priorities.

Do those choices really have the best interests of the students at heart?  Are they creating productive citizens?  Are they teaching students to think intensively and critically?

We spend billions of dollars and years of our lives on education.  We should expect much more from this time.  The amount of waste and sheer stupidity that goes on everyday in schools, in my opinion, is borderline criminal and unacceptable at best.

Conclusion

My goal with this series was to convince you that our schools are so terribly bad that making huge improvements is a real possibility.  My hope is not that you would be discourage by taking a look at these issues, but that you would be encouraged that real improvement is possible.

I feel our current school system is creating of wasteland of under-performing and demoralized students piled up behind the few students who succeed.  I know we can do better.

– – – –

If you have comments or feedback please email me (peter@iqlie.com) or send me message on twitter (@theiqlie).